The Italian Garden

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE ITALIAN GARDEN is a fascinating, accurate portrait of sixteenth century Europe told through the life of its fictive protagonist. Joanna Zulian, of Spanish gypsy and Italian blood, is orphaned in childhood. Her dying father sends her to Venice, pathetic dowry of a few coins and herbal notebook in hand, to the studio of her uncle Taddeo, where she discovers her natural talent for painting.

Joanna has mastered herbal medicine, taught to her by her father, an itinerant vendor of elixirs. In her uncle’s studio, she begins to paint the flowered backgrounds of his commissioned works. Her gender alone prevents her being apprenticed and continuing her development as an artist. He uncle, determined to profit from her presence, affiances her to an older man, an artist named Gaetano of Padua.

The pattern of Joanna’s life is thus set from her middle teenage years. First, she is wife to the older, possessive, and subsequently indifferent Gaetano. She escapes this marriage when war threatens Padua, but cannot overcome Italian religious and social restrictions that forbid divorce. Her legend as a woman of questionable morals follows her and repeatedly affects her relationships with men: an English doctor, a wealthy French landowner, and a French-English soldier of fortune.

None among this garden of relationships is perfect, and one is clearly poisonous, but Toby Crow, a French-English mercenary, offers Joanna’s best hope for happiness. How Toby discovers his own parentage and eventually rediscovers Joanna, how circumstance and fate use them both, how irony and timeless symmetry fill life, all expressed in figurative gardens of tenderness, passion, jealousy, and obsession, is the substance of this wonderful book.